Transmitting the Clean-Energy Future

By Richard W. Caperton of the Center for American Progress, January 25 2010

The Supreme Court last week decided not to review a lower court ruling on electricity transmission, upholding states' ability to deny permits for new transmission lines. This will allow states to prevent anyone—either the government or private businesses—from building new transmission lines. The United States needs these transmission lines. They would enable Americans to consume more clean energy by bringing it from wind- and solar-powered plants to homes around the country. And a report released last week by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that we need 20,000 new miles of transmission lines to move carbon-free wind energy from wind turbines to East Coast consumers alone. The United States can't reap the benefits of clean energy if Americans can't access it, and these developments reinforce the fact that climate and energy legislation must contain a comprehensive transmission proposal to effectively drive the transition to a clean energy economy.

Transmission lines are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid, carrying high-voltage electricity from where it's generated to where it's used, similar to the function of the interstate highway system. The interstate highway system was critical to the U.S. economy and national security in the 1950s, and a modern electric grid is in the same way vital to the United States today. Our electric grid dates from at least the 1960s and most of the pieces are at least 25 years old. New transmission will allow us to utilize new renewable electricity and reduce the coal fired electricity production responsible for a third of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.

Transmission investment is a key to a countryís economic competitiveness, as well, which is why China is investing $217 billion in their electric grid between 2006 and 2010. New transmission has benefits in its own right, beyond broadening clean energy use. For example, new transmission would relieve electricity congestion that costs the eastern United States $16.5 billion each year and would create redundancies that are necessary to keep the electric grid active when one small part stops working. Building transmission lines is also a significant job creator. Studies of three comparable large-scale projects show that, on average, new transmission lines create about 14 jobs per mile of transmission, which means that building the 20,000 miles of new transmission we need could create 280,000 new jobs.

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